Safety and HR Lessons from Movies – First Man.

Recent Sundance Film Festival releases, The American Factory and Untouchable, the first Weinstein #METOO documentary, illustrate workplace lessons presented by well made films.

Similarly, Damien Chazelle, the director of La Land and Whiplash, has another Oscar nominee this year, the superb movie “First Man”—the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon. A stunning Apollo 11 documentary was also released at Sundance, which distilled 300 hours of 70 mm cinema-quality film into an outstanding 1 ½ hour doc. Seen together, these movies teach a great deal about how employers should work with their employees in the aftermath of tragedy.

Consider that Neil Armstrong lost 10 or 12 colleagues at Edward’s airbase as a test pilot and at NASA, culminating with his best friend astronaut Ed White in the tragic Apollo 1 fire.

Even In a Data-driven Economy, Employers Must Consider the Human-side of the Workplace.

Neil Armstrong was a larger than life hero who possessed an engineer-driven ability to overcome fear and act during crisis. He is portrayed as a typical post WW II man who guarded his emotions and was austere and aloof in many interactions.

However, as is often the case in the workplace, personal problems contributed to his increasingly obvious inner pain and problems with his children and his stalwart wife (Claire Foy). Those personal problems affected his work and his relationships with coworkers.

Armstrong’s pain first stemmed from the loss of a young daughter to cancer. The movie opens with many shots of doting dad, Neil Armstrong with his family and much adored daughter. She develops cancer and despite Armstrong’s herculean efforts, she dies young. One poignant scene shows an emotionless Armstrong sneak away from the visitation to his office, lock his door, and sob uncontrollably. He never shows emotion or even talks about her for the remainder of the movie, although it is obvious that she is seldom far from his mind. Coworkers and family are concerned, but do not know what to do.

Armstrong can’t talk about fear and barely tolerates questions from a press who worships astronauts. Meanwhile, he is resolutely loyal to friends, still loves his wife even though he hurts her, and makes the mission succeed. Ryan Gosling makes Armstrong as real and imperfect as the person working beside you. You never lose respect for the man.

Workplace Deaths and Catastrophes.

It is standard operating procedure for employers to bring in grief counselors after a workplace fatality, and increasingly our “manly” culture acknowledges that it’s human to be devastated to lose a coworker, or even worse, someone for whom you were responsible. Seeking counselling is no more a sign of weakness than wearing a splint.

Survivor guilt is applicable to workplace fatalities. Over the course of working with over 570 workplace fatalities, I’ve observed that coworkers feel unmerited guilt after the first 24 hours wears off, and, in response, look for anyone and anything to blame. This is one reason why coworkers often inaccurately make comments like “we knew it was coming,” or “everyone knew it was unsafe.” While such comments are attention-getting, they are rarely true.

As to the supervisors, we’ve seen men and woman ruined by the loss of a subordinate. It’s common for supervisors who lost an employee to never come back to work, even though they did nothing wrong.

See my earlier Post on responding to employees who lose someone.

Broader Application to the Workplace.

While you shouldn’t unnecessarily pry into your employees’ personal lives, psychological and biochemical studies show that not only personal tragedies, but depression, family troubles, and other stressors can result in physical fatigue, diminished judgment, and weakened reflexes. Studies now show, in fact, that fatigued executives are more likely to commit ethical and judgment violations.

In the scene where NASA interviews Armstrong for the space program, they ask him whether the recent death of his daughter would affect his performance and matter-of-factly states only that “I cannot imagine that it would not.”

Employers need to consider when and how they should approach employees about personal issues affecting their work. Employers also underuse Wellness Programs and fail to train frontline supervisors to be sensitive to when off duty problems can affect effectiveness and even safety. Wellness efforts are also woefully underused to equip employees’ families to respond to opiate issues and conditions leading to workplace violence.

Amazon – First Man.

Rotten Tomatoes – First Man (87%).

Apollo 11 Trailer: The Moon Landing Documentary Critics Call ‘Astonishing’ (IndieWire)


A few other Movie observations:

  • Both movies are superbly edited and the soundtracks are brilliant. In the Apollo 11 Documentary, even though you know how the story ends, the soundtrack is one of the reasons that you stay on the edge of your seat.
  • As my film critic son would say, the sound in First Man “is off the chain.” I had no idea about how terrifying the noise of a giant rocket were in takeoff.
  • Unfairly, some right-leaning commentators accused First Man of being unpatriotic because it did not show Armstrong planting the flag. The whole movie is a love letter to the USA space effort! The Director spent little time focusing on the moon activities because he had clear goals of what he wanted to show about Armstrong and how he, in some ways, finally made peace with his daughter’s death as he stared at the amazing majesty of the moon surface with Earth handing above. You’ll tear up.
  • The movie was pre-OSHA and operated with a get-it-done, we’ll-pay-the-cost mentality. A fascinating side story is how NASA turned around safety (and efficiency) after the loss of the Space shuttle.
  • After again seeing what the wives endured, I can now see why my wife loved the book, The Astronauts’ Wives.
  • Astonishingly, First Man built sets and did NOT use much green screen/CGI as do most similar movies!
  • Texans and indie movie fans should be proud that Neon bought the Apollo 11 Documentary and several outstanding Sundance Films such as Monos. Neon is the Film Company co-founded by Tim League, who owns the legendary Alamo Drafthouse.


About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
This entry was posted in Employee Assistance Plans and Counselling, movies, Uncategorized, Workplace Fatalities, workplace violence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Safety and HR Lessons from Movies – First Man.

  1. Bo says:

    Thx Howard- Apollo 11 is coming to St. Louis in IMAX this spring. I’ll bring earplugs. There’s a book you should read called Rocket Men by Robert Kurson- its all about Apollo 8 and the first trip that put men in moon’s orbit, paving the way for Apollo 11.

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